Staying In, Singing Out

Gay Choruses Keep Singing During COVID-19

David Boraks with WFAE recently reported how local entertainment venues like Blumenthal Performing Arts in Charlotte are looking to Asia as they plot ways to reopen. “Big musical productions and baseball are back — and seats are filled,” says Boraks. In fact, the only production of Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s “Phantom of the Opera,” which typically plays multiple venues around the world at any given time, is currently running in South Korea.

While theatres may be open, gay choruses like South Korea’s G-Voice have not returned to in-person rehearsals or public concerts just yet, however. In a country where discrimination remains widespread against LGBTQ people, G-Voice has offered much-needed community and has continued to offer a message of hope during the pandemic — one that is being repeated by choruses here in Charlotte. “Our love and songs can’t stop — see you again with song soon,” states a recent post on a group’s social media.

In China, the Beijing Queer Chorus had started singing together in person in late May only to return to virtual rehearsals as of June 16, due to new outbreaks of COVID-19 in the city. Similarly, cities across the U.S. are scaling back re-openings and increasing mask mandates to contain a new surge in cases. After some reopenings here in Charlotte, the county faced its second highest daily increase in cases on July 1 — a troubling sign for anyone hoping live performances will return anytime this year.

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“For all of us striving to maintain frequent connections for rehearsals and performances, the threat of COVID-19 is profound,” says Miriam Davidson from the Anna Crusis Women’s Chorus in Philadelphia, the longest-running feminist women’s choir in the country. In an online resource center for “quarantined choirs” put together by the Gay and Lesbian Association of Choruses (GALA Choruses), she points out the coronavirus’ implications on the community’s health, finances, artistic sensibility and social justice missions. The organization’s GALA Festival was supposed to kick off in late June in Minneapolis, Minn. but has been postponed to July 2021.

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte (GMCC) faced the realities of the pandemic early on. GMCC had to cancel its annual fundraising event, “After Dark,” scheduled for March 14, just one day after the Executive Order by Gov. Roy Cooper banned gatherings of more than 100 people in North Carolina and closed public schools.

“Because we are just at the onset of this health crisis, it’s not possible to predict when we’ll be back to ‘business as usual,’ but we are already exploring innovative ways of bringing our programming to the community,” read a press statement from GMCC at the time.

“We immediately went into lockdown mode and tried to figure out how we were going to continue virtual rehearsals,” says John Quillin, managing artistic director of GMCC. Zoom and other platforms makes that extremely difficult because of audio delays, background noise and cancellations, according to Quillin and Cory Davis, the artistic director of One Voice Chorus Charlotte. “Singing together is really difficult,” says Quillin referring to the online platforms.

He recently contributed to the “Choral Singing in the Time of COVID-19” user guide released by Dr. Timothy Seelig of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The guide provides research around transmission of the coronavirus and how choruses can be safe.

“The most important factor here is the safety of our singers,” states Dr. Seelig. The GMCC is exploring new avenues to sing and realizes that other concerts this year, including its cherished holiday performance at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, will have to be canceled. Alternatively, the chorus is planning a TV broadcast on WCCB-Charlotte called “Santa Will Find You” from Dec. 5-7. They will be the first LGBTQ chorus in the country to create a made-for-television broadcast.

Other projects include a virtual choir project expected to to have appeared in early July, a collaborative virtual choir project with the Charlotte Children’s Choir in August, pop-up “Drive-in Movie Musicals” later this summer, a virtual fundraising gala on Sept. 12 and a virtual holiday cabaret. In addition, GMCC is partnering with other gay men’s choruses in the U.S. in support of Black Lives Matter with a composition by Steve Milloy, expected to premier in October.

New Ways to Make Music

“To sing, to get ready to sing — we’ve got to figure out how to do that,” says Quillin. The chorus regularly rehearses at St. Martin’s and the church is still only in Phase 1 of reopening which allows a maximum of 10 chorus members at a time based on social distancing requirements by the Diocese of North Carolina. The group is looking at options for drive-up rehearsals, something other choruses have utilized, using a low wattage FM transmitter and individual microphones that are sanitized after each use. In addition, small group rehearsals using isolation booths might be put into place, and the chorus is planning on using a recording studio to create its upcoming virtual concerts.

For One Voice, Davis says the group has been more focused on social activities to keep members engaged and supported during the pandemic. “I see the rehearsals as a means to an end usually, and there’s no end right now,” he says. The chorus is preparing a virtual performance that will include archival video and some new virtual “live” components. This past spring would have been Davis’ first big show since joining the chorus in May of last year.

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On June 13, One Voice released a virtual performance of “Rise Up” by Andra Day on its YouTube and Facebook pages. “While we can’t gather in person, we are finding new ways to make music together and serve our mission to increase acceptance and understanding of LGBTQIA+ people,” stated the post. “It’s a technological feat,” says Davis. Using a guide track, he had each member perform using their mobile phones. Then, he aligns each video into one media file, separating the audio out to make it appear like it was performed in real time. “It took between 80 and 100 hours to pull together,” says Davis.

One Voice is also hosting virtual karaoke events and has had impromptu sing-alongs on Zoom, despite the difficulties in using the platform. “Everything we’re doing now is mostly just for the chorus, and very little is for the ‘audience,’” says Davis. “It’s more about engagement.” The organization is focused on ensuring the health and safety of members, citing the mass infection of 53 people in early March following a choir practice in Washington state.

While both the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte and One Voice Chorus are finding ways to connect, the loss of revenue is also problematic. Each organization relies heavily on ticket revenue and is having to navigate difficult licensing fees and procedures for online performances.

Quillin hosts a weekly meeting online of artistic directors from the GALA Choruses network. “We’re really leaning on each other,” says Quillin. He hopes that after the pandemic is over choruses from across the country can come together to perform “Requiem” by French composer Maurice Duruflé. “It’s one of the most beautiful pieces I’ve ever heard,” says Quillin. “It would be amazing, and also a nice way to acknowledge all of the people who have died.”

“There’s no real substitute for the type of choral singing that we’re used to,” says Davis. “We’re not going anywhere; we’re just trying to navigate all of this like everyone else. We’re going to put on whatever music we can and support our community, which includes singers and audience, as much as we can even if it’s not in the normal way.”

To learn more about the Gay Men’s Chorus of Charlotte, visit gmccharlotte.org.

To learn more about One Voice Chorus Charlotte, visit onevoicechorus.com.

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